Imagine you are 14. You are told you have to leave your home because the people are organizing. You don’t know why. You go to the mountains with a group of people who explain to you the political situation of your country. You cook for soldiers and walk for miles each night for 12 years. The majority of your lifetime you can remember, you have been in a war. You don’t imagine ever seeing your home and loved ones again.
This, along with many more details (falling in love, having two children who you must leave with your mother) is what one of my closest Salvadoran friends endured during the country’s civil war.
El Salvador’s civil war officially began in 1980, and lasted until 1992. The war was between an oppressive, military government right funded by United States’ tax dollars, and the Faramundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) or “guerrillas” on the left. However, like most wars, those who suffered the most were civilians. Over the span of the war, 75,000 people died and many were terrorized and tortured.
Researching this war under the supervision of Dr. Molly Todd at Montana State University is what eventually led me to volunteer with Sister Cities. Living in El Salvador the last few months has brought to life for me the aftermath of the war.
One of the first things that surprised me most about El Salvador is people’s willingness to share their testimonies. I was inspired by these survivors at home, but when they are your friend and they share a part of this past, it adds a new dimension to these stories.
As soon as Katie and I arrived in Arcatao back in August, we were welcomed by Rosa Riveras, a founding member of Arcatao’s Historic Memory committee. We met her at the town’s small museum, and she gave us a detailed tour, complete with the general history of the civil war, as well as specific stories of people from the community. The next day we had our first historic memory meeting where a woman told us her full testimony and invited us to lunch.
According to Rosa, the purpose of the historic memory committee is for survivors to write their own history to discover the truth, or as she puts it, not to erase all the pain and suffering, but to learn from the past in order to not repeat it. The committee meets, without fail, every Sunday to discuss project ideas and events happening in and around Arcatao. Some of the most recent events we attended were an exhumation and a workshop sponsored by the Museo de Palabra e Imagen (San Salvador).
In this workshop, we split into two groups and did an activity that consisted of creating the museum of our dreams. These museums were complete with multiple rooms, visitors, employees, gift shops, cafes, and additional exhibits to tell what the present-day situation in Arcatao is like. We then wrote down the five main things we wanted from our dream-museums and presented to the other group. We then split into two new groups to discuss what steps we need to take to actually achieve these dreams.
Like all ideas this organized, driven committee has, the inhibitor is almost always funding. Where can they get the funds to buy a proper building, let alone pay one or two employees to have visiting hours?
As “Historic Memory Interns,” one thing Katie and I noticed was the main reason we are useful is because of our gadgets. Our two main tasks we have been assigned so far is transcribing interviews that are already filmed and interviewing different community members about the post-war era. Both of these tasks most people on the committee could do better than us, but they are lacking simple things like a computer with a disk drive, and a camera that can record. A basic laptop with a disk drive and camera could go a long way for both these projects. (If you are interested in helping make this a reality, please contact Sister Cities.)
Historic memory committees are not unique to Arcatao. The majority of municipalities have them. Through these committees, survivors and families of survivors can write their own history to remember loved ones and the past in order to take charge of their own futures. I cannot adequately cover in one blog post how powerful it is to hear the testimonies of people in Arcatao. It continues to amaze and humble me how people who have suffered so much from U.S. tax dollars welcome me, a U.S. citizen, warmly into their homes and share not only a warm meal, but painful stories of their survival. It probably goes without saying–their is something special about Salvadorans.